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JEFF JACOBY

Buzzwords and cheap shots

JOHN KERRY told us more last night about his childhood memories of bike riding in Berlin than he did about his nearly three decades in public office.

"I ask you to judge me by my record," he implored, but then said virtually nothing about it. There was a single throwaway line about his time as a prosecutor. Nothing at all about being elected lieutenant governor. And just three sentences about his 20 years in the US Senate. Twenty years! A third of his life! Yet neither in his speech nor in the video that preceded it did Kerry say anything about what those two decades have meant to him or what lessons they may have taught him or how he thinks they have prepared him for national leadership.

"Judge me by my record," he says. But all night long -- all week long -- there is only one part of Kerry's long record that the Democrats have wanted Americans to notice: the part that ended 35 years ago when he came home from Vietnam. Why are they so reticent about everything he's done since?

His political career wasn't the only thing missing from Kerry's speech.

"This is the most important election of our lifetime," he said. "The stakes are high. We are a nation at war -- a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before." And with that, he launched right into a discussion of -- what? The nature of that unprecedented enemy? The threat from radical Islam? His strategy for victory? No: After raising the specter of an enemy "unlike any we have ever known before," Kerry promptly started talking about -- jobs. Coming less than three years after 9/11, this is the most important election of our lifetime. But why that is, Kerry has yet to say.

He spoke of his empathy for the young grunts "carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place" and about his respect for "all who serve in our armed forces today." Couldn't he have spared a few words to salute those troops for their two great achievements of recent years -- the toppling of vicious tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Kerry's cheapest shot came at John Ashcroft's expense: "I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the Constitution." And how, exactly, does Ashcroft undermine the Constitution? By abiding by the Patriot Act that Kerry supported? That's something else the Democratic nominee never explained. He did, however, enjoin President Bush to stick to the "high road" and avoid "small-minded attacks."

All in all, it was a pedestrian address, uninspiring, cliched, and humorless. It made sure to work in all the poll-tested buzzwords -- I counted 17 mentions of "strong" and "strength," 28 of "value" or "values." But buzzwords don't decide elections, and they aren't the key to a swing voter's heart. Kerry may yet prevail over George W. Bush, but he didn't close the sale last night.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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